Since 2006, Actions Solidaires de Soutien aux Organisations et d’Appui aux Libertés (Solidarity Actions of Support to Organisations Promoting Freedom – ASSOAL) has been working with the grassroots network Réseau National des Habitants du Cameroun (National Network of the Inhabitants of Cameroon – RNHC) to develop new ways to improve access to affordable housing, and to advocate for their application, which culminated in the formulation of propositions for nation-wide policies. The issues addressed include: access to property ownership; rental housing; neighbourhood improvement, through inclusive and democratic processes. ASSOAL and the RNHC started a series of pilot interventions to demonstrate the validity of the new approaches such as participatory budgeting and housing cooperatives funded by a revolving fund. To support these various initiatives, ASSOAL runs dissemination and knowledge-sharing activities, as well as building the capacity of various actors.
Aims and Objectives
ASSOAL aims to contribute to improving access to secure decent housing and basic social services through democratic processes throughout Cameroon, whilst creating a culture of citizen participation and empowering the poor to positively shape their living environment. In collaboration with the RNHC, ASSOAL set up housing cooperatives and promoted participatory budgeting, whilst advocating for the formulation of adequate policies and their implementation. The targeted beneficiaries are poor communities across the country amounting to around 250,000 people, with special emphasis on women and youth. In the long term, ASSOAL hopes to reach 40 per cent of Cameroonian urban dwellers.
Yaoundé is a good illustration of the urban living conditions in Cameroon. The population has almost doubled to approximately two million over the last decade, while investment in the urban sector has lagged behind, with the provision of services and facilities only increasing marginally. The number of informal neighbourhoods has grown rapidly, exacerbating social and economic problems. Almost 70 per cent of the urban population lives in precarious areas, with more than 50 per cent living below the poverty line. The land system is poorly regulated, with title deeds attached to less than 10 per cent of the land, and access to credit for housing remains limited by high interest rates. Across Cameroon 5.6 million people living in slums face similar circumstances, as the urban sector is undermined by structural problems such as significant housing deficit and governance issues linked to a latent public service culture and limited transparency, participation and accountability.
In order to demonstrate the validity of new approaches such as participatory budgeting and housing cooperatives, ASSOAL and the RNHC have carried out a series of pilot interventions. For example, in the periphery of Yaoundé, a pilot cooperative housing project is underway to address housing affordability. Houses have 80m2 of inhabitable space, with three bedrooms and a living room, kitchen, bathroom and veranda, with drinking water and electricity. Three hundred houses are to be built and the first three have been completed. Local labour and mostly local materials are used. The broader aim is to enable the construction of 1,500 houses on a country-wide scale through 17 housing cooperatives. Credit to the housing cooperatives is made available through a revolving fund which is overseen by a Board of Directors, a technical secretariat responsible for the reception and analysis of records of application by the cooperatives and a committee responsible for recovery tracking and monitoring of the use and final destination of resources. A Steering Committee oversees the strategic guidelines and carries out bi-annual technical reviews to maintain quality and adjust future actions. It approves the list of projects selected, and liaises with regional city planning authorities, ensuring coordination between stakeholders.
Furthermore, in 2003, ASSOAL set up the first two pilot projects in participatory budgeting based on the Brazilian model. In 2008, 19 other participatory budgeting projects for neighbourhood improvement were rolled out in three phases of 12 months each.
- Phase 1: Introduction to the concept of participatory budgeting, approval by community and local authorities, funds gathering;
- Phase 2: creation of communal assemblies of delegates, organisation of priority-setting process, and vote;
- Phase 3: allocation of funds and implementation, use of SMS by community to monitor progress and outcomes.
So far, the participatory budgeting process has led to the prioritisation of infrastructure provision (water supply, street lighting and road improvements), social programmes (health, job creation), and building of housing units.
In addition, the programme also focuses on building capacity at local, national and international levels:
- Improving community organisation by compiling charters and guides facilitating local action and public participation in policy formulation, running dissemination workshops and training 300 community leaders;
- Supporting the creation and development of civil society networks such as the RNHC, the civil society organisation (CSO) platform for the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights in Cameroon;
- Promoting and organising international knowledge-sharing platforms concerning participatory budgeting processes, to achieve recognition and scaling up of participatory budgeting as an innovative participatory financial management tool.
Finally, ASSOAL also engages in advocacy and lobbying for the right to housing and secure tenure, as well as working to influence, formulate and promote housing and urban development policy.
Most costs are covered by contributions from donors such as CORDAID, the European Union, the World Bank, UN-HABITAT and the French Cooperation in Cameroon. Additionally, ASSOAL and its partners (cooperatives and CSOs) commit to mobilise at least ten per cent of the annual budget of around US$1.7 million.
More specifically, interventions identified through participatory budgeting processes are financed through public and donor funds mobilised through lobbying at higher levels and direct negotiations with municipalities, while the cooperative housing pilot project is financed through a revolving fund. This fund received seed funding from:
- members’ savings gathered through micro-finance organisations, amounting to 20 per cent of housing costs;
- state subsidies;
- loans from the Crédit Foncier national lending institution for housing.
The Fund sets an interest rate of one per cent and is refinanced by loan repayments, with any shortfalls by individuals met by the cooperative through a solidarity mechanism.
- In addition to increasing access to housing and basic services, the work of ASSOAL has created a conducive environment for democratic thought, negotiation, and acknowledgement of citizen rights.
- At municipal level, the programme contributed to the capacity building of local authorities and facilitating collaboration with its citizens. Municipalities have begun to mobilise resources for urban development, and training processes have led to a better understanding of the provision of services.
- The work of ASSOAL has influenced national policies, creating an enabling environment for other stakeholders.
- Participatory budgeting has stimulated the local economy through procurement processes, and initiated dialogue between the municipalities and local businesses.
- Participatory approaches have been assimilated by some local authorities who applied them to new neighbourhoods.
Why is it innovative?
- Setting up of the first experiences of participatory budgeting in Cameroon, which were highly innovative in the context of the region and have now spread to other African cities.
- Reducing the cost of housing and facilitating access to credit through a financial strategy based on the use of revolving funds.
- Linking pilot projects to the formulation of national policies; influencing policy at national level.
- Using ICTs (internet and SMS) as a tool for mobilisation, information sharing and monitoring of projects.
What is the environmental impact?
Although imported materials are used in some components, e.g. cement for flooring, most of the materials used for cooperative housing construction have low embodied energy, such as straw-stabilised earth bricks and other locally-sourced materials.
The project has enabled basic services to be provided to communities where they were previously lacking. The provision of electricity in the cooperative housing units decreases reliance on other fuels such as wood or charcoal and the installation of improved latrines and waste management systems has helped to decrease water pollution. Three mobile units for household waste collection have been established in three neighbourhoods, benefitting 3,500 inhabitants. A unit has also been established to manage electrical, electronic and digital waste.
Is it financially sustainable?
- The work of ASSOAL is funded by a combination of donor contributions, the allocation of public funds, bank loans for cooperatives and member contributions. Whilst each of these is susceptible to changes in the future (e.g. change in government, shift in priorities, economic crisis, etc), the wide range of funding sources helps to reduce risk.
- The programme has demonstrated the effectiveness of mechanisms for affordable and accessible housing provision for the poor including savings schemes, revolving funds with low interest rates and the cooperative housing approach, which allows communities to collectively deal with difficulties and reduce the risk of forced evictions.
- The production of materials and construction through labour-intensive techniques has generated employment locally. The programme has also developed activities with an indirect redistribution of income for more than 500 youth and women. For example, the ‘youth and entrepreneurship’ component created 250 income-generating activities as well as providing additional skills. In addition, economic damage created by the lack of decent housing, services and facilities has been attenuated.
What is the social impact?
This led to a greater awareness of the collective strength of the community in influencing decision-making. Cooperation between many different actors who have learned about each other through dialogue and collaboration has been achieved, resulting in common objectives being presented to local authorities for implementation. There has been a noticeable increase in the ability of communities to identify priorities and fulfil aspirations, including through the mobilisation of actors and beneficiaries in neighbourhood networks and cooperatives, the elaboration of alternative proposals for the funding of housing and basic services and the local monitoring of the services rendered by the municipalities.
The commitment of the residents to participatory activities, for example in participatory budgeting processes and housing cooperatives, has increased the level of engagement in the definition and management of local policy, whilst creating feedback mechanisms that influence national urban development strategies.
The programme has focused on specific vulnerable and marginalised groups, namely women, youths and disabled people, as important beneficiaries and actors of urban transformation, with several activities and services specifically dedicated to reducing existing social inequality. Women have progressively become more involved in spaces of participation and workshops have been carried out for specific groups, e.g. on gender and land rights.
ASSOAL was also successful in creating a healthier environment. Improved water, sanitation and solid waste management, along with the provision of training and campaigns on hygienic and safe practices has resulted in a reduction of mortality and morbidity rates (decline in helminths, cholera, malaria, etc). Houses are constructed according to safer building codes and roads are maintained in better conditions, decreasing the risk of accidents.
- Difficulties with public entities due to excessive bureaucracy, very low culture of public service provision, lack of recognition of diversity of beneficiaries, and tendency to resist decentralisation and participatory processes. These were overcome through permanent contact and regular exchanges between institutional actors and members of civil society and the private sector to build better long-term relationships.
- Lack of involvement and commitment among residents to the maintenance of houses and infrastructure. To counter this, ASSOAL has set up maintenance committees and worked to educate residents on the importance of involvement in maintenance.
- Planning was sometimes too ambitious compared to the resources available, and adjustments had to be made based on lessons learned from the first experiences.
- Limited capacity to monitor outcomes/problems was addressed by involving citizens through SMS signalling of issues.
- Bottlenecks to resident participation are not only due to the reluctance of authorities to delegate decision-making, but also to the fact that residents are often initially sceptical about taking up responsibility unless engaged in an effective way. For example, youth participation was very low, but developing appealing concepts such as the use of SMS raised enthusiasm.
- There is a need to adjust to the capacity of different municipalities to follow proposed activities in order to be effective.
- Long-term advocacy, lobbying and precedent-setting can be more effective than social unrest.
Monitoring of participatory budgeting processes is carried out by ASSOAL half-way through the project, and by an independent consultant upon completion. In 2011, an impact review was carried out in Yaoundé by a consultant using statistics and participatory methods to collect and compare data with initial findings. In 2012, the World Bank Institute monitored the ICT component of ASSOAL’s programme.
Many of the experiences piloted by ASSOAL are being scaled up, including the cooperative housing model being applied to 1,500 housing units, and participatory budgeting processes being proposed to 90 settlements across the country. Follow-up work is carried out by ASSOAL on various projects to ensure that they expand and build upon existing capacity. These and other initiatives are transferred according to guidelines produced through activities promoted by ASSOAL, e.g. guide for citizen participation, Charter for Local Action and participatory budgeting methodologies, etc.
ASSOAL has successfully engaged with the policy sphere and several aspects of its work are increasingly being adopted by local and central authorities, e.g. discussions have been opened to use ASSOAL’s housing design for the construction of 10,000 social housing units.
The organisation has also contributed to the setting up of several national platforms to promote participatory budgeting and cooperative housing.
Internationally, ASSOAL was involved in producing a ‘Charter of Intentions for the Promotion of Participatory Budgeting in Africa’ which is the basis for new participatory budgeting projects in the region.
Knowledge exchanges have been organised with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Senegal and Kenya, and visitors from 13 countries in Latin America, Africa and Europe have come to learn from their experience.